Students are crouched in shallow pits of earth in the vast, expansive Idaho desert. Though the daily temperature is well above 100 degrees, they work away at the excavation site, slowly uncovering artifacts from people’s day-to-day lives that have been buried for thousands of years.
Each meticulous movement to shift dirt or pry an item from its resting place is being captured by new media communications student Hayden Wilcox.
Last summer, Wilcox accompanied students of Oregon State’s Archaeological Field School, an archaeology course taught by professor Loren Davis that is open to Ecampus students around the country, to the Cooper’s Ferry excavation site. There, Wilcox spent seven weeks camping with the team and filming their excavation.
Davis has been working with the Cooper’s Ferry site since 1997, when artifacts from a test pit were found to be more than 13,000 years old, placing humans in North America more than 1,000 years earlier than had been established previously. The artifacts, living areas and refuse from ancient peoples found at the site, Davis says, offer new insight on early North American history.
“That’s groundbreaking for what it means to American culture — the first Native Americans,” Wilcox says. “That’s what fascinated me about the site. From a news perspective, that’s the ultimate news. I was like, ‘I want to be there.’”
Wilcox got involved when he was finishing up his first year as an Oregon State student and KBVR producer and anchor. In June 2012, Davis suggested he join the team. He recruited Wilcox to document the discovery of artifacts from a first-hand perspective that he says is often absent in archaeology.
“Archaeology is like time-based art, it happens and it’s over,” Davis says. “I think that’s unnecessary. We can use digital technology so other people can experience it, make their own judgments about it and learn more.”
For Wilcox, who had little experience with camping and no knowledge of archaeology, this was an opportunity to get hands-on experience in the field.
“It’s probably the most I’ve ever learned ever at a single time,” Wilcox says. “I learned something new every day from conversations with students, teaching assistants and Dr. Davis — and I really built up my skill set because I had to live and sleep with my camera every day.”
Using new media to tell old stories
In addition to capturing the excavation on film, Davis hoped bringing Wilcox to the site would lead to a new way of communicating their work to those who don't have a background in archaeology or an idea of why it matters.
“One thing that’s a big theme of our group is that we bring together the old and the new,” Davis says. “We’re working with a lot of old things, but we can learn so much about them with new technologies, and Oregon State is a great place for that because people are always experimenting and adapting technologies in new ways here.”
Usually applying new technology to archaeological questions means using cutting-edge techniques in his lab, or adapting machinery built for construction to enhance a dig. But this time, Davis decided to bring two disciplines together to tell a story about the excavation of Cooper’s Ferry that everyone could understand.
“My job out in the field was not only to document what was happening, but it was also to act as a translator to the public,” Wilcox says.
Using trowels and brushes to progress through the site in 10-centimeter increments, students cleared dirt away from larger objects in the ground, then ran the dirt they’d collected through screens and water to separate any smaller artifacts. With the students’ help, Wilcox came to understand the painstaking processes necessary to find artifacts like the stemmed projectile points common to site — and the rush of discovery that comes with it.
“You could see the emotion in the students faces,” he says. “The anticipation, the focus, the determination and the care, and the feeling the students got when they took the artifact out of the ground and it suddenly hit them that the last time this artifact saw the light of day was when a prehistoric human last let it fall to the ground, thousands of years ago.”
It’s that moment of discovery, Wilcox says, that made being at the site for seven weeks to witness the students’ work so important.
“As documentarian, you have to be there for those moments,” Wilcox says. “Whether it’s their first artifact or their hundredth, that excitement doesn’t go away, and that’s something you can’t recreate.”
Gaining career-ready skills
While learning about Cooper’s Ferry and the archaeological techniques that were helping piece together its history, Wilcox also had to develop on-the-ground camera skills to make the most of his time with the team.
“In the field I had a lot of practice with figuring out what is the subject of this shot, how do I get the most information out of this and how do I make it engaging to the viewer,” Wilcox says. “That was one of my driving factors, to tell the story and get people interested.”
While the Ecampus students learned how to uncover and catalogue artifacts, skills to help them begin careers as archaeologists, Wilcox learned how to turn film of their experiences into a story that could educate and entertain others.
“I was lucky that I had my experience with Beaver News, because it taught me to tell the story with video first, and then add words,” Wilcox says. “Show, not tell.”
Wilcox says the most valuable part of the experience was being in the field, where he had to work with people and his camera on a daily basis. The constant exposure taught him how to help people become comfortable in front of the camera as well as how to ask questions that encourage them to tell their own stories.
This school year, Wilcox has been airing segments of his documentary work on KBVR, as well as posting them on the Cooper’s Ferry YouTube channel. In the future, he hopes to provide the videos to other TV stations, both as news pieces on the excavation as well as educational tools.
“It’s significant for student media because this is something we haven’t done before ever, we haven’t collaborated with other departments,” Wilcox says. “This is our first step into reaching out to the community. Hopefully we get to do more of this in the future and expand to other departments.”
In addition to documenting in the field, Wilcox films work in Davis’ Pacific Slope Archaeology Lab on campus, following the archaeological process from discovery to analysis. This summer, Wilcox will return to Cooper’s Ferry to continue gathering video, a project he hopes to continue throughout his time at Oregon State.
“I think that the best way to learn something is by doing it,” he says. “From this experience I’m gaining a lot of professional experience that I know will help me get a job out of college in something I love doing: telling stories.”